HOW MUCH IS ENOUGH: EXERCISE AND YOU
by Christian Marchegiani
After the great cardio vs weights debate, I think the question “how much exercise is enough?” comes a close second to what people most want to know about fitness.
There are two analogies I'm going to use to answer this question - getting a sun tan, and making a coffee – which just happen to be my two favourite things.
Most trainers would say something like “there is no right answer” or “whatever works best for the individual”. Both of these statements are true to a certain extent, but the question I want to ask is not how much SHOULD do, but how much is enough.
With the rise of boot camps, CrossFit, mud runs, and spartan races over the last few years, there has been an emphasis on pushing the body to its absolute limits to see how much it can tolerate. While this is all good and well when trying to fill up the trophy cabinet, I want to place some emphasis on how little exercise the body actually needs, rather than how much it can endure.
No matter how much the media tries to sugar coat it, exercise needs to be hard and intense to be effective. Anything less is just recreation or rehab. And, when I say “hard and intense”, I don't mean long in duration.
HIRT - High Intensity Resistance Training should be capped dependent on effort
Now, on to the coffee analysis… When I boil my morning coffee, it takes a certain amount of time for it to boil before I can drink it. If I let it sit on the hot stove for longer, it doesn't get any more “boiling”. In fact, it actually starts to burn. Why? Because boiling point is boiling point. Let’s not confuse exercise with sport either. Anything that requires a time based focus where there are place-getters, or scores are kept for competitive purposes, is a sport.
Exercise is not a sport. With proper coaching and care, exercise should not hurt you.
As for sports? Injuries are part and parcel of the game. Most athletes accept this, but will do their best to minimise the risk by performing proper “exercise” in the gym. Again, contrary to popular belief, you cannot perform sports specific training in the gym. Why? Because skills are simply not transferable. Trying to train in the gym by doing “sport specific” training can actually interfere with the skill an athlete needs on the field. My advice is to strengthen the muscles needed for a specific sport and then practice the sport itself.
Now, back to exercise.
Think of the muscles in your body like boiling water, or like getting a sun tan. Once you have done the minimum amount required, your coffee burns on the stove and your skin burns in the sun. Your muscles work the same way. Once you have inflicted the minimum amount required to stimulate a response then it's time for recovery. If you go back and hit your muscles again before they've had time to recover, you begin to dig into their reserve stores which have been saved for the recovery process (providing the stimulus was high enough). How do you know what stimulus is high enough? Unfortunately there is no real accurate measure for this, regardless of all the fancy equipment out there. The only way to know if you've stimulated an adaptive response is to work at your highest possible intensity. Of course this is relative and will change from person to person.
If 80% or 90% is the required amount of intensity to stimulate an adaptive response, how are you supposed to measure it? You can't, which means you have to give an all-out effort just to make sure. When you give an all-out effort, and I mean by an HONEST all-out effort, there is no way you should feel like training the next day. And so you shouldn't.
Your body has begun the recovery process and is working towards restoring its reserves and adding a little more to the tank. Depending on your condition, an all-out effort can be anywhere from 15 to 45 minutes. The workout I am talking about is where you've worked your whole body with maximum resistance and quality range of movements, otherwise known as high intensity resistance training (HIRT).
Personally, I try to stay somewhere in between this time frame, which is around 30 minutes. Unfortunately this is hard to do in commercial gyms because you have to wait for equipment and, more often than not, people like to have a chat in between. My advice would be to set up a space with a barbell and dumbbells and then go hard. Now, you might be tempted to work longer, or do 100 crunches, or jump on a cross trainer. This is unnecessary. If you have worked to an all-out effort where you've forced your muscles into submission with every exercise and every set, you simply won't be able to train longer.
So, following the principle of a 30 minute session every second day, this equates to around 3-4 sessions per week - right? Well what I'm actually going to tell you to do is drop it down to 3 sessions per week and give yourself a 2 day break in between one of the workouts. It won’t do you any harm and, no, you won’t get fat, lose strength, or become unfit. If anything you will come back stronger and have more capacity to give an all-out effort in your next session.
Yes, that means you will only be working for 90 minutes a week (take away warm up, mobilising, and stretching) – and that’s perfectly fine. We've been conditioned to believe we need more, which I attribute to clever marketing by the big brands to keep you addicted and riding the fitness merry-go-round. But, by reducing the frequency and duration of your sessions, you'll save more than just time. You'll save your joints, and you'll be protecting your nervous system.
Ultimately, it will all come down to what works for you and what program you stick to. If you're happy with what you’re doing, and you’re getting results, then no amount of research will prove otherwise.
Reference: Bannister, Gary. If you like exercise chances are you're doing it wrong. Bloomington: iUniverse, 2013 Little, John. High intensity training the Mike Mentzer way. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2003